Title: The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britain’s Railways
Author: Michael Williams
Published: Arrow, 2015
As I think I mentioned in my Reading Bingo post, this is the nerdiest thing I’ve ever read that isn’t directly related to my PhD. That’s okay. I’ve been fascinated with abandoned railways and stations since I was a young child. Every year, we used to go on holiday to Snowdonia, and one year, we caught the mountain train back down from the summit of Snowdon, having climbed up. Obviously, this is a gloriously beautiful journey, and on the way down, we passed a small abandoned station that was being gradually reclaimed by nature. There were sheep wandering in and out, both windows had been lost to time, and greenery was gradually swallowing the station back into itself. Since that day, I have been storing that station inside my heart, waiting to write a book that is set there. Until that day comes, I will content myself with reading about other abandoned stations and lines.
I’d never heard of this book before I saw it on my library recommended shelf. I suppose that’s not surprising—a book containing 16 essays about train services that no longer run in the UK is unlikely to be a runaway hit—but it is still a shame. This completely charming book has been one of my favourite reads this year. It’s written with incredible love for trains, and for all the trappings associated with them—the soothing routines, the beautiful countryside, the sense of adventure. Even as someone who regularly commutes by train, and who has had cause to curse them more than once this year, they have never quite lost their wonder for me—and that was brilliantly conveyed through this text.
There are some absolute historical gems slipped into each essay, though I think my personal favourite was the idea of silver-service breakfast every morning on the Tube (this is a real thing that happened for decades, apparently, if you were a very wealthy city worker). Another highlight was learning about the fantastic methods people used to protest the closing of the Edinburgh Waverley line under Beeching (no spoilers, but a teaser: a vicar, fisticuffs, and goose grease). I think that Williams uses about the right amount of technical detail—I loved learning about how trains were designed to transfer onto ferries, for example, and I am by no means an engineer—without becoming dense or impenetrable. That’s a great achievement.
Williams avoids slipping too much into nostalgic might-have-beens, even when he is talking about the calamitous Beeching Axe in the sixties and the vast economic and social impact that had on rural communities. He’s objective about the fact that some lines just could not carry on running on ten passengers a week. However, he doesn’t gloss over the pain that these and other cuts caused to their local communities, especially the working classes who couldn’t afford cars and were suddenly cut off from the rest of the world, sometimes after a century of rail travel. Indeed, love for the people associated with the railway—staff and passengers—dominates many of these stories, and he often quotes directly from sources written at the time.
One last thing—the world of rail enthusiasts, like all enthusiast-heavy worlds, seems to be populated with remarkable and delightful characters. Williams is fantastic at rendering eccentricity respectfully. This particular man, who is painstakingly restoring a defunct station in the north of England, stood out to me:
“So devoted is Thompson that, although his home is on the other side of the Pennines at Sedgefield in County Durham, he lives in a caravan on the site. He’s joined as often as possible by his equally train-mad wife, a hospital consultant in Hartlepool, and supported by the station cats, Quaker and Oates. ‘Look at this,’ he says, proudly showing off a teak LNER carriage he is restoring from the heyday of the railway. ‘So far, it’s cost me £180,000. And these lovely luggage rack brackets. Beautiful. Four thousand pounds! See this engine,’ he says, pointing to a little Peckett industrial saddle tank, ‘that’s mine’; gesturing to a diesel shunter next to it, ‘and that’s my wife’s’.”
What a completely mad, completely lovely couple. I want to be their new best friend.